What's in a Name?


Though a liberal, I am not and never have been a devotee of political correctness. I think “black” and “Indian” work just fine most of the time and consider “African American” and “Native American” to be superfluous mouthfuls. I think it's more important that disadvantaged schoolchildren memorize their multiplication tables than have their self-esteem preserved. And I can't quite get behind the idea that people who choose to change their sex should be grouped, rights-securing wise, with people who were born gay.

So I don't usually go in for this sort of thing. But as the new football season approaches, enough is enough: Washington Redskins is a horrendously racist name.

Where do I start? I suppose by saying that this fact should be so obvious to absolutely everyone that the need to change the name at this point, now no longer the “innocent dawn” of the 21st Century, should be beyond debate. I mean … Redskins! Just sit with that word for a while.

These next three paragraphs contain a few offensive words, but using them (or some of them) is the best way to make the point. Let's start with the mother of all racist pejoratives -- you know the word I mean. This one I won't put it in print; it's too lurid. Obviously, no one would name a team the Washington N-----s, and anyway, I don't think Redskins is equivalent to that. We white folk (this includes not just the United States, but pre-U.S. colonialists) may have killed far more native people, but what we did to black people occupies a more prominent place in our national memory, and I think probably rightly so. So the N-word, so fully associated with that history, is a special case, and it has no equal.

But as we know, alas, there are several pejoratives for black people that are one or two ticks down from the big one. And here, we start to see very clear parallels with redskin. The closest one is “spade.” Both refer specifically to pigmentation (the latter a metaphor drawn from a deck of cards). Both mock and categorize entire races explicitly because of pigmentation. So if you think Washington Redskins is OK, then you believe that Washington Spades would be fine, too.

And there is more: Because of the nature of the historic conflict between white man and Indian, the word redskin carries another, more implicit meaning -- it marks the people described as a different, hence exotic, hence somehow threatening tribe. Here, the equivalency is with Jews. Could we imagine the Washington Hebes?

Obviously, we could not. But Redskin is no better. And an examination of the history of the franchise seals the argument.

The Washington Redskins began life as the Boston Braves. The team played in Braves Field, home of the baseball Boston Braves (later the Milwaukee Braves, today the Atlanta Braves). In 1933, one year after joining the National Football League, the football Braves moved over to Fenway Park. A name change seemed in order. Head Coach William “Lone Star” Dietz was allegedly of part-Sioux descent. Hence, Redskins, in his “honor” (let's consider it a happy accident that Brother Dietz wasn't a quadroon). The team moved to Washington in 1937.

The ignominious roots in the North's most racist city should tell us something. And I just love that notion that the name was meant to honor Dietz. I'm sure it was, but this only reinforces the fact that times and mores change. In 1930s America, it was also an “honor” for Hattie McDaniel to have to act out humiliating mammy stereotypes in order to win her Oscar (after having been pointedly disinvited from Gone With the Wind's world premiere in Atlanta).

But here's what really settles matters for me: The Redskins are historically the most racist franchise in professional football. Indeed, the club integrated only under the direct pressure of the Kennedy administration. The tale goes something like this: The federal government (the Department of the Interior, I believe) built the stadium we now call RFK. Federal law prohibited segregation at such facilities. So if the Redskins wanted to play in the spanking new park, they had to start having black players.

The White Curtain finally fell in 1962, long after most professional football teams. In fact, the NFL integrated in 1946, one year before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line (baseball was far more popular in those days, so Robinson was much the bigger deal). Most franchises had several black players on their rosters a decade before Washington did. Again, dwell on this for a moment -- nearly every team, for 10 full years; at least a couple thousand games in which the franchise whose name denigrated one race made itself the outlier of its profession by pursuing a policy that denigrated another.

What's this have to do with the name? One might think that possession of the most disgraceful racial record in pro sports history would still weigh, just a bit, on the conscience of the most valuable sports team in North America (yes, more than the New York Yankees, $1.3 billion to $1.03 billion, according to Forbes' 2005 rankings). In a city whose media did a better job of reminding both George W. Bush and Redskins principal owner Daniel Snyder about the burdens of history, this would matter more than it does.

I don't think all Indian names have to go. “Braves” and “Chiefs” are scarcely pejorative terms. Specific tribe names, like the Seminoles used by Florida State, are case by case, and indeed the paladins of FSU have taken care to sit down and talk with present-day Seminoles and work out a rationale for continued use of the name. That's fine. Many colleges, Marquette most especially, have jumped the P.C. shark to extents that can't even be mocked in trying to ditch their anti-indigenous heritages.

But “Redskins” is a very different story. I pray that Suzan Shown Harjo and her comrades who are suing the organization in order to force a name change find justice. Better yet, I pray that Snyder sees reason of his own volition. This is the sort of problem that savvy public relations can easily turn into a virtue. The fans would resist at first, but they could play a role in the renaming, and, as in most things, time would sort the disgruntlement out.

Finally, I pray -- and this most fervently -- that the team repeats Sunday night's lackluster performance, in which it lost to the Bengals (what Asian cats have to do with Cincinnati I don't know, but at least the only offensive thing about them is their helmets) 19-3, every week until January, or until the franchise wakes up and joins the mid-to-late 20th Century. Until then, Fail to the Redskins.

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's editor.

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